Michael van Hoogenhuyze ~ Rob Steenhorst – Director of paradoxes 2015 (consideration)

A trumpet player walks through a Dutch street, surrounded by Alsatian dogs; whilst a group of jackdaws circle noisily around him. Two street children try to catch the attention of one of the dogs, all the while completely ignoring the trumpet player. You could apply this lack of mutual interest to all the other elements in the street; the trees, the bicycle and the shopping trolley, the paving stones, birds and children. Nobody seems to register the slightest interest in the other. It is a situation that could really have happened, but at the same time it is a bizarre and enigmatic image. Rob Steenhorst, the creator of this tableau, says he really did see the trumpet player years ago, as a child in Amsterdam-West.

Rob Steenhorst has developed as an artist, from a painter to designer of computer graphics. This development seems to have been determined by practical circumstances. Steenhorst’s painting technique was originally based on creating a very detailed view of concrete, recognizable situations; a method that is very time-consuming. All the while his imagination was running ahead of his work; formulating ideas for future pictures before the painting that he was working on was completed. The computer offered him a procedure where the thinking, planning and working stages could be brought closer together; whilst (on the other hand) allowing a clear distinction between the design and implementation stages. And that fits Steenhorst’s way of working. Rob Steenhorstdesigns” pictures, or rather; he is a director in a “wholly visual” play. During these years of artistic development, he also found that some of the chemicals in oil paint were bad for his health. An additional reason to see the computer as his primary creative aid.

The images that Rob Steenhorst makes are extremely suggestible. Looking on, one can quickly recognize situations and dilemmas; and you are quickly aware that the works can be viewed as scenes from stories. Many spectators try to reconstruct the missing story in Steenhorst’s art. This is a literary, rather than a classically visual reaction in unlocking a painting, as art in its own right. Rather, the image is “relegated” to the first step in looking for the “missing” text.

Working with a computer has given Rob Steenhorst the means to be more efficient in capturing his dreams, fantasies and memories, in a style that suits his painting methods; namely a hallucinatory realism. Steenhorst’s work is part of a long and ongoing tradition of extreme realism; something he is certainly aware of, both in past and contemporary art.

At first glance, we can see elements of the New Objectivity from the 1930s in his work. Everyday scenes highlight an uneasy interface between realism and alienation. Other influences can be felt by the viewer. Steenhorst’s realism has strong associations with 15th century painting, namely the early Renaissance and the Flemish Primitives; especially a shared fascination in creating imaginary or “supposable” situations through painting. This is a fascination that attracts many, and is not only seen in Van Eyck or Ghirlandaio but in the painters of the 20th century, such as Pyke Koch or Dick Ket. Portraying things realistically also allows a certain “magic” to be let loose, as all objects in a painting suggest a special meaning. It may go further in Steenhorst’s work, because the viewer can enjoy a heightened (and thus even more deceptive) spaciousness and tangibility of things, an “authenticity” compounds the puzzling nature of his images.

But if we look once again at the contents of the images, and consider Rob Steenhorst’s own life story, there is another influence. He reimagines his youth in Amsterdam; painting a world that regularly, almost seamlessly incorporated bizarre elements into everyday life. Further, his images do not describe non-existent events. Steenhorst’s work, rather, puts us in mind of the work of filmmakers like Fellini and his contemporaries, where an initial realism is overtaken by a sense of the bizarre side of life, one that gives the films a “surreal” or “fantastic” character. The way Steenhorst’s figures adopt specific attitudes is also reminiscent of theatre and opera. Some of his work conjures up the scenes from “Verismo” composers like Puccini or Bizet, albeit updated to the 21st century.

A woman in a white satin clubbing outfit turns half-frightened, half-indignant, to react to a boy’s advances. In the background a pair consisting of a fat man with striped suit and a woman in a bright red dress walk by, seemingly deep in an argument. The event takes place in a desolate and impoverished neighbourhood.

In many images, the viewer looks down from a raised vantage point. The ground – or the earth itself – is thus given a clear role to play. We may see, alongside the influence of Fellini, the gloomy, earthbound visions of Tarkovsky.

A realist painter working in the 21st century will be just as influenced by films as by paintings.

But there are also images that refer to ancient paintings, such as the contemporary interpretation of Christopher, the giant saint who bore the Christ Child over water. The saint is here dressed in an elegant suit, and depicted in a manner in which two images are simultaneously displayed, offset against each other to suggest movement.

The work of Rob Steenhorst is a journey through his memories, associations and “recollections” of suspected, past worlds he may have experienced. He presents an “atlas of 21st century imagination” for us; our fantasies, famous films, and reproductions of old paintings juxtaposed just like an Internet search; a welter of images “served up” in an instant.

And there are other elements to consider. The alienation present in the images of Rob Steenhorst is somehow different than the illustrious examples we have mentioned. It looks like he has access to a world that is not his, nor ours.

In his “Forgetting Book”, Douwe Draaisma writes about remembering and forgetting; how things are forgotten during the progress of one’s life, and how memories of the past can never be a true reflection of a previous phase in a life. There is a split; a person in the present is irrevocably alienated from that same person in the past. Going back to the past is therefore impossible, an “illegal act”; regardless of how many memories are kept from a past time. To keep on living, previous personalities are replaced, allowing one to define a new role. We are no longer children or adolescents; these life phases are over. Yet Rob Steenhorst seeks to enter these past worlds, to bring the experience back.

The images of Rob Steenhorst are the phantoms of a world that the maker cannot really penetrate. It is a strange “ghost world”, an everyday and unreal world in one. We spectators note how the artist is, as it were, lost in this world. This recognition is disturbing, and in the way we experience Surrealist painting, but without the overblown irrationality of that particular movement.

Rob Steenhorst sometimes sees himself as a director of scenes in a movie, or a play. Given this, it is likely that many viewers of his work will analyze, or consider the images as theatrical scenes. But to my mind, much of this impression is a reaction to Steenhorst’s technique. It is not just the extreme realism, but also the way that that realism is achieved. It is important, therefore, to consider the works’ creation in greater detail.

The first steps in constructing a work are formulated on screen. The next step is to print. Whilst these prints are generated, Rob Steenhorst manipulates the initial “finished” image through a number of other reproductive formats and processes. This dichotomy, between the finished image in the computer, and the various reproductions (that still contain the same information as the official work) allow other impressions of the work to be formed. The actual work is the image on the screen. But there are also the “places” where these images are found; on a print, on a canvas, or on the paper. If viewed in that way, there doesn’t seem to be an ideal format. These works are phantoms, given shape. And that is why I always refer in this article to Steenhorst’s “images” instead of “prints” or “paintings”.

The images have been created by a computer program; a 3D drawing program in which the first drawing is created, and added to in terms of colour, texture and details. The 3D drawing can be viewed, in an almost academic manner, as the skeleton of the artwork. But there is something interesting added. A drawing is made up of lines. In art, lines are usually the expression of a thought. Lines do not exist in reality. But on paper, they are the artist’s preferred manner in finding the final form. A hand-drawn line often displays a discernable mix of willpower and doubt. The lines in the work of Steenhorst are not the lines of the artist, however, but those of a computer program. And it follows that these lines are neutral, mechanically created, and have no human feel. Rather, a set of floating images appear; not controlled by the will of the artist, but inserted into the screen; via a command in the program. It makes the different elements appear as if ghostly apparitions.

By means of a command, the background, objects, and characters can be made larger or smaller, or their positions altered in the composition. In this sense, the working method appears to be very similar to the work of a director. The players also have their own laws. The director may adjust the players’ actions but cannot “make” them. Even if they were created, they certainly do not owe their innermost vitality to Steenhorst. It gives the images a character of their own, dreamy and disturbing.

Rob Steenhorst does not use any photos. This has major consequences; as a photo always contains the distinction between the elements that have been chosen deliberately, and those forms that happen – by chance – to encroach into the original composition. The image is composed of chosen elements which are independent of any “random chaos” that is always present in a photographed scene. Still; however much the artist also tries to get everything under control, there will always be elements that escape his attention.

That something unplanned develops from a motif in an artist’s past or from the material used is an interesting factor in the creative process in general; and often noticeable in many finished works. And this is a “tradition” that is centuries old. But the computer images of Rob Steenhorst seem to add something fundamentally new. Here, everything is under control; and if that control is not provided by the artist, the computer program will provide. There are no details that have slipped past the artist’s gaze and into the picture. Further; most people are familiar with the relationship between noise and information. In the images of Rob Steenhorst, everything has become information. However rich and detailed the images are, there is at the same time a feeling of a vacuum, which, incidentally, we can also see in the “Pittura Metafysica” by Giorgio de Chirico. But that vacuum that Steenhorst is even more extreme. It’s down to the fact that the computer knows – and shows – no preferences or differentiations as regards the subject matter.

The advent of photography created the phenomenon of displacement. This development began to appear in painting. An image was cropped detail of an infinite reality; cropped – for practical reasons – as well as for the benefit of creating a clear composition. Image details can also be cut-off in film and video. The result is that we have learned to view such images in the realization that we do not see the “whole picture”. We are therefore confronted with a double message: that which is displayed, and that which is, and remains, left out … This phenomenon doesn’t occur in the work of Rob Steenhorst. Nothing is left out. Everything that can be shown is shown. It can be said, therefore, that his images have the accuracy of an altarpiece from the fifteenth century.

This method (images without noise and without random cropping) allows intuitively chosen scenes, but displayed in a manner where everything, every pixel, is controlled. There is a dichotomy between control and intuition. That makes the image all the more disturbing, sometimes even threatening.

In some works, you get the impression of a slow explosion. The figures seem to float out of the picture. Things are light, implemented by a machine with no will, only reacting to the directions from the artist. That indefinable lightness combined with painstaking illusion makes the work of Rob Steenhorst dreamlike. The scenes shown are disturbing because, in their unreality, they do not seem to be meant for us. This is reinforced by Steenhorst’s own fantasies, ones which, in a sense, are a private matter. We are onlookers in his fantasy world. And though we can dream about his strange weightless world, we also know that it is not meant for us. It gives us a mixture of pleasure and doubt, curiosity and embarrassment.

And here we come across a paradox. These images are clearly made for an audience; printed, hung in an exhibition, and printed in smaller formats for other forms of dissemination. The artist wants to show his work. But at the same time it seems clear that the artist was not influenced by any desire to please a crowd whilst he dreamed up salient elements and images for his work. This fantasizing is strictly private, the view very public. And that view is painfully precise and tangible, whilst artificial, illogical and controlled. Thus, the audience is confronted with an intriguing body of work that is full of paradoxes.

Lately, Steenhorst has felt the need to bridge the contrast between control and intuition. Painting a computer image allows a new process to enter the fray. After all, the act of painting is an ongoing conversation between the eye, hand, material, and the visual result. And Rob Steenhorst has the urge to paint these images again. In this way, an intensive and more “organic” dialogue can be made with the material, after the cool discussions that drove the manipulation of a computer image. The decision promises to usher in a new phase in his work.

Michael van Hoogenhuyze

Leiden, 2015